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Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday/Random House

US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-385-50947-2

Publication Date: September, 2003

260 Pages; $24.95

Review Date: August 28, 2003

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003



Horror, Mystery, General Fiction

09-20-02, 09-30-02, 10-08-02, 01-07-03, 06-12-03, 08-22-03, 10-22-03

Chuck Palahniuk is one of the many authors I've read about, heard praised by trusted fellow readers, meant to read, but just never managed to get to. His reputation as a cult writer is intriguing. The moniker "reinventor of the horror" is off-putting, the horror genre having never been one of my favorites. At Rick's urging, but mostly to see what reinvented horror might possibly mean, I picked up 'Diary', described as Palahniuk's "mainstream" novel. To my surprise, it is written from the female character's perspective, in both the first and third person. It is gruesome, but far less violent than I had expected from the author of 'Fight Club'. And "reinvented horror" translates into a thinking man's, slightly demented, 'Rosemary's Baby' with more complex themes, more humor and absolutely killer writing.

'Diary' is the story of Misty Marie Kleinman, a young art student from a Georgia trailer park and Peter Wilmot, the bizarre young blue-blooded man she meets and ultimately marries. Misty and Peter move to Peter's home on Waytansea Island (Wayt an see - none too subtle). She is pregnant with their daughter Tabbi; he is a participant and pawn in an ancient island curse. Misty abandons art to become a maid and waitress; he rebuilds houses on the mainland with rooms that disappear. When we meet them, Peter is in a hospital with brain tumor, comatose and cruelly, gruesomely contorted. Misty is keeping a "coma diary" of her life while coping with Peter's rightfully disgruntled clients, the rude and annoying tourists overrunning the island, her daughter and her meddling mother-in-law. And the island's local populace, all decked out in attire festooned with commercial slogans, appears unnaturally interested in Misty's art. And then bizarre and bad things begin to happen.

This is where I would normally roll my eyes, tune out and move on. And I likely would have were it not for Palahniuk's unbelievably inventive and original writing. His twisted style and exceptional skill hooked me from the first page. Even though I knew it was going to end badly.

Misty is the single fully developed character in the book. She breathes and seethes with disappointment and despair at the state of her life. A bit mean spirited, more than a little bitter and wholly cynical, Misty gets through each grueling day with "a couple of drinks and a couple of aspirin. Repeat". She is both reflective and resilient, an all-too-real figure midst the otherworldliness of her surroundings. And she's thoroughly engaging.

Palahniuk writes on the bleeding edge of cynicsm; his words are dark, cold and very tough. His humor has a bite; it's acerbic, mean and chilling. He's the master of images both ghostly and ghastly - distorted bodies, needles through nipples, shriveled appendages. Humorous and creepy, bizarre and unexpected, his writing is original, emotionally satisfying and highly entertaining.

'Diary's themes are varied, from the commonplace - satiric disgust at hollow commercialization and environmental disintegration, to the more complex - misery as muse, art through suffering, and the artist's place in the world. These themes are hammered, and hammered again. Palahniuk's repetition creates hypnotic mantras that recur and replay with increasing intensity. Mixing philosophy, art, religion, psychology, and mythology, he builds suspense as well as terror, and makes the incredible real. Or surreal.

I was devouring this book with eagerness and admiration...until the third act when Palahniuk piled on the horror, dialed up the insanity and turned the plot into the Book of Revelations. I felt like a pinwheel, flicked by Palahniuk's narrative gyrations first right, then left, then right again. Dizziness overtook pleasure; craziness reigned (or rained) supreme. In full-fledged horror mode, the story zoomed over the top into the ludicrous, for me, all too easily distanced and dismissed. I felt like I was careening down the halls of the Stanley Hotel (not the Waytansea) with a demented Jack Nicholson brandishing an axe!

So Diary's ending came unglued, spun out of control and ultimately disappointed. It mattered not at all. While his storytelling ultimately didn't suit, Palahniuk's prose most certainly did. Cynical, humorous, dark and richly bizarre, Palahniuk's trump card is his wholly original and thoroughly engaging writing style.